What is the difference between the words to prolong and to protract? Can we replace the words with each other without losing their meanings in the following sentences?

To protract means:


He had certainly taken his time, even protracting the process.

To deprive a successful litigant of interest on his or her legal costs is to encourage the losing side to delay and protract the assessment process.

The ‘winner-take-all electoral vote’ practice can avoid prolonged county by county vote count, which will inevitably protract the delivery of a new president.

We've been in such a hurry for all these years for one main reason - the more the negotiations are protracted, the more difficult they become, which can be easily noticed.


To prolong means:

to make something last a ​longer ​time:

We were having such a good ​time that we ​decided to prolong ​our ​stay by another ​week.

She ​chewed each ​delicious ​mouthful as ​slowly as she could, prolonging the ​pleasure.


  • I think one distinction is intentionality. I usually see protract in contexts of an intentional drawing out to delay some consequence. By contrast, I often see prolong in contexts where the delay or drawing out is accidental; a result of inefficient processes, say.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 26, 2015 at 13:23
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    This extract may help:thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-educationplus/…
    – user66974
    Aug 26, 2015 at 13:25
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    The biggest difference is that protract is not a verb. English borrowed the participial adjective protracted from Latin to mean drawn-out (literally), but didn't borrow the rest of the verb, so we only have the adjective. You can't say He protracted the meeting by arguing about every definition; you could say prolonged or lengthened or a number of other verbs, but not protracted. And then there's the fact that the agent noun formed from protract is a tool for geometric measurement -- a protractor, involving angles instead of lines. Aug 26, 2015 at 15:20

2 Answers 2


I would possibly suggest that


just means, almost literally, "add length" or "make longer".

(Note that indeed it can be used, unusually, by - say - designers or engineers in the sense of making some part longer, like a piece of metal or the like.)

"prolong" is somewhat "value free" - it just means "add length". Whereas


is sort of a "bad thing" (it's somewhat like using - let's say - "spoil" "ruin" "fatten" or the like). It means stretch out, draw out, pull on, tug on.

(Of course, just to confuse things, I guess in unusual situations you could, indeed, also use "protract" to mean literally draw-out; for example "protract the piece of molten steel an additional 7cm...")

I would be inclined to suggest generally using protract at all times in the sense you allude to, as it is sort of the "value-laden" word of the two. (It is the "negative" word.) Leave prolong as a value-free word used by engineers/etc to mean "add length unto".

Thus, you're staging Sound of Music at high school, you might say "let's prolong it 15 minutes." You're simply saying, as a "good" thing, let's add in another song and add 15 minutes to the running time. Use protract in cases where something is ("horribly") being drawn-out.

Of course ............ we have "prolong the agony" as a common phrase - which completely messes up all that I say above!

However it's true that whenever you mean "good" thing (prolong the performance, prolong your experience, prolong the holiday by adding another city, etc) you do indeed use "prolong" as I suggest above.


No, they are not directly synonymous. Protract comes from the Latin "to draw out, to pull" (the same root as for tractor). Hence it suggests that the activity has been artificially stretched, i.e. lengthened but not overall enlarged. One may wish to prolong a pleasurable experience, but not protract it.

  • I wanted to add some examples : When something is extended but you wish not extended it. Example: I have no desire to protract the process. When something you want to extend because you desire it. Example: We were having such a good time that we decided to prolong our stay by another week. Aug 14, 2021 at 13:01

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